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PINE GAP: Of Satellites, Spies and Double Agents

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times Share:
Australia is a vital ally of the United States. But their relationship gets marred when a rouge missile takes down a civilian plane with a number of Americans onboard. Photo: Netflix/ABC

If you have never heard of “Pine Gap” – both the series and the actual place – that’s okay, join the club.

The United States has three major communication monitoring facilities: one in Denver, one in the UK and one in Pine Gap, Australia. Based outside Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Joint Defence Pine Gap is jointly managed by the United States and Australia.

The Pine Gap Agreement was signed by Australia and the US on December 9, 1966 and the facility became operational on June 19, 1970. The facility monitors nuclear stockpiles and ballistic weapons in several regions. It consists of a large computer complex with 14 radomes protecting antennas that control US spy satellites as they pass over one-third of the globe which includes China, the Asian parts of Russia and the Middle East.

The secretive ways of the facility has been turned into a mystery drama series of the same name. The show’s main source is David Rosenberg, a veteran of the US National Security Agency who worked at Pine Gap for 18 years, from 1990 to 2008.

Pine Gap is an ABC-Netflix co-production created by Greg Haddrick and Felicity Packard.

Pine Gap lead actors Parker Sawyers as Gus and Tess Haubrich as Jasmina. Photo: Netflix/ABC

After binge watching this show I decided to do some research to understand more. Personally, I find that shows that make you want to know more about real-life scenarios are the best shows to watch.

I soon discovered that it was actually Edward Snowden who hacked documents that made waves several years ago, putting Pine Gap in media spotlight for the first time since the Cold War.

The documents provide authoritative confirmation that Pine Gap has ongoing involvement in the geolocation of cell phones used by people throughout the world. Perhaps even more shocking was Pine Gap’s role in codename RAINFALL, which collects, records, processes, analyses and reports on data on surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and fighter aircraft signals collected from tasked target entities.

The facility location of Pine Gap is on sacred Aboriginal land which, for thousands of years, was a place to easily connect with the stars and keep track of the year. Ironically enough, this place was chosen for joint operations by the US and Australia because of how open and easy satellites could communicate.

The actual Pine Gap facility in Australia. Photo: Kristian Laemmle-Ruff

The series also delves on how Aboriginal people resent the fact that their land has been taken from them and used for every dodgy human-rights-violating US operation, yet at the same time recognises that the local economy would collapse without it.

I found this series really interesting because of its storytelling dynamics that aren’t often shown to US audiences, which is anything about real, actual tensions between the US and its allies. I was surprised at how accurate some of the dialogue was regarding the US, and especially impressed with how seamlessly they were integrated into the drama of the plot.

Further, the show allows its viewers weigh the human impact of being part of a cutthroat surveillance community. This, however, is some aspect of the series I find a bit too cliché because you start to see romantic relationships evolve with other staff members at the facility because the average Joe citizen can never know what they do.

The series opens its first episode with news reports of the increasing tension in the US-Australia alliance, then we are brought to the speech of American President Larry Kerr played by Rob MacPherson.

There is apparently a handheld rocket which has been launched in Myanmar, not far from where an Asia-Pacific leaders’ conference is being held. The people inside Pine Gap have no idea where the missile came from, and who its target is.

As much as the A-team tries to intercept it, the rocket destroys a small civilian plane that had 4 Americans among its passenger list.

Things get interesting from here as there is limited intelligence that goes to the A –team, led by mission director Gus Thompson (Parker Sawyers), that must decide whether to retaliate and if they have the right target.

Well, they thought they do. But it turns out that it was the wrong target which causes Ethan James (Steve Toussaint), the American liaison, to come under fire from his Australian counterpart, Jacqueline McKenzie (Kath Sinclair). The Aussies are unconvinced as to how a missile attack was allowed to take place.

This leads to an investigation causing both sides to play double espionage games on other. While the American side is quickly trying to blame China, the Aussie side suspects their own government.

Things get more complicated for the facility as there has been a devastating security leak that further divides the American and Australian bosses.

At first glance, the viewer is directed towards the female protagonist, Jasmina Delic (Tess Haubrich), as the infiltrator. Why you ask? Because she was born in Serbia and her parents died in the Kosovo War, where Serbian and Albanian communities erupted in major violence in the Serb province of Kosovo (which is now a nation). The limited action from world leaders allowed for the typical war atrocities to occur, leaving Jasmina with possible motives of revenge in her heart.

However, as the story progresses, the series becomes more in line with the 1980s movie “Who Done IT” and each staff member becomes suspect.

On top of this, there is an overzealous Chinese investor trying to buy the land from the Aboriginal community which maybe a covert operation by the Chinese government to gain closer access to what’s going on inside Pine Gap.

In exchange for the land, the Aboriginal community would get a large sum of cash. The local community needs the money and would quite like to be free of US dominance. But is the Chinese company as benevolent as it seems or is it just trying to monitor Pine Gap?

The who, what, why and how of Pine Gap is not easy to unleash. But its six-episode first season is worth binge watching.

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